BOZEMAN - They may not be the most flashy players in the Big Sky Conference, but when guards Jason Erickson and Kevin Criswell hook up, it's always a duel worth watching.
It certainly was Saturday night, when Erickson's Montana State Bobcats defeated Criswell's Montana Grizzlies 77-61 at MSU's Worthington Arena.
Measured by stats and the scoreboard, Erickson came out ahead in this latest chapter of their rivalry. He overcame a slow first half to finish with 14 points on 5-of-11 shooting from the field, while adding five assists, four steals, three rebounds and just two turnovers in 38 minutes. Criswell faded after a fast start, finishing with 11 points on 3-of-6 shooting, three rebounds, two assists and five turnovers in 33 minutes.
They guarded each other all evening long: a couple of small-town gym rats going head to head. Neither was heavily recruited out of high school, yet they've emerged as two of the conference's best guards.
Erickson came into the game as MSU's leading scorer with a 17.4 average, while Criswell led Montana at 13.5 points per game.
Erickson said there wasn't much talking when the two are guarding each other.
"Both of us are quiet guys, but I sure respect his game," said Erickson, a 6-foot-3 senior from Eagle River, Alaska, who was named the conference MVP as a sophomore. "He got me a couple ones early. He's so crafty with being able to draw fouls and get you in the air. If you're not into it, he'll expose you. I just wanted to make him work for his points."
Erickson said he tried to use his one-inch height advantage and quick hands to bother Criswell, a 6-2 sophomore from Colstrip who came to UM as a walk-on, but set the school's freshman scoring record last season.
"I was trying to be there and be a pest whenever he got it," Erickson said. "I'm a little taller and longer, so I tried to tip some things and make it harder for him."
Criswell scored the game's first two baskets on a baseline drive and a runner in the lane, and hit a pull-up jumper on the break with 14:40 left to give UM its biggest lead at 10-4. But he didn't notch another field goal, and scored just one point in the second half.
"In scoring positions, you can't let him have the ball, and that's what I tried to do," Erickson said. "On his cuts, I tried to make him go a little farther out, catch it a little bit deeper. A little bit less in scoring range, where he's either gotta put it on the floor to get where he can score, or pass it and run the offense."
Erickson missed several fastbreak attempts in the first half and had only five points at intermission. But he kept his poise, didn't force his shots, and wound up in double figures.
"He's a terrific player. He's really a seasoned, seasoned player," said UM coach Pat Kennedy. "I did not know him that well a year ago, but I really admire him. He's a good basketball player."
Criswell said he enjoyed the challenge.
"When you're playing one of the better guards in the conference, you always like to match up against him," Criswell said. "But I thought I played him tough all night."
Montana State came into the game struggling from 3-point range. In its four conference games, the Bobcats hit just 15-of-78 shots from beyond the arc (19 percent).
All that changed against the Griz, as MSU knocked down 7-of-11 shots from downtown. Former Bozeman High standouts Nick Dissly and Danny Faaborg hit two apiece, which wasn't a surprise. But forward Calvin Ento, who had never hit a trey in high school or college, buried a trey midway through the second half to help the Cats pull away. And reserve forward P.J. Owsley also buried the first trey of his Bobcat career.
Ento said that MSU coach Mick Durham gave him the green light.
"He said if you make it in practice, you can make it in a game," said Ento, who hit another perimeter shot en route to 13 points.
Durham said the best aspect of the victory was that his team finally made some shots after struggling in recent games.
"We've gone four games without making jump shots. We actually made some baskets," Durham said.
So is the 6-7 Ento, now 1-of-3 on 3-pointers this season, the Bobcats' new secret weapon?
"Well, he actually made two perimeter shots," Durham said. "That's kind of up to him. I hate to say that."
Rim shots: The win gave Durham 214 overall wins as head coach of the Bobcats. That tied him with former Boise State coach Bobby Dye (1983-95) for the most by a conference mentor. … Losing the Griz-Cat game is never easy. Losing at home, though, is the worst. "Just thinking about the feeling of losing at home to the Griz my senior year makes me sick to my stomach," Erickson said. "It's one of those things that it's a huge positive, but man, it really could've been negative." … UM's inability to execute on offense was a major culprit in the loss. "When you're not executing offense, it seems like all we were taking tonight were tough shots," Criswell said. … The Bobcats celebrated their Big Sky football co-championship in a rousing halftime ceremony. Roughly 90 team members were introduced and ringed the court as a banner was unfurled at the top of Worthington Arena. In addition, the title trophy was presented to Coach Mike Kramer, his staff and the team, which defeated Montana last November for the second straight season.